State Dept-funded program installs alternative networks abroad

internet abroad

While some security experts have recently accused the United States government of undermining the infrastructure and integrity of the web, the State Department is helping fund a project that lets people connect and communicate over alternative networks.

Since last June, revelations about the US National Security  Agency and how it goes about getting intelligence from foreign  suspects have continued to surface, in turn rekindling all too  routinely allegations about how the internet has been practically  obliterated by the NSA.

Leaked intelligence documents disclosed to the media during that  span by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have indeed impacted  the way the world sees the American government with regards to  protecting a medium of communication that continues to grow. But  while these heightened concerns about online privacy are without  a doubt warranted thanks to Mr. Snowden’s revelations, one former  government official now tells the New York Times that a project largely funded  by the Department of State is actually making it easier for  people in certain parts of the world to communicate and  collaborate over a parallel internet of sorts.

“Exactly at the time that the NSA was developing the  technology that Snowden has disclosed, the State Department was  funding some of the most powerful digital tools to protect  freedom of expression around the world,” Ben Scott told the  New York Times for an article published in Monday’s paper.  According to Scott — a former State Dept. official who helped the  agency get involved in a program that is putting the web back  into the hands of the people — the US government has actually  been playing a pivotal role in letting new parts of the world  become networked.

“It is in my mind one of the great, unreported ironies of the  first Obama administration,” Scott told the Times.

One of those endeavors that’s been spearheaded by the State Dept.  is Commotion: an open-source toolkit that provides users with the  technology to connect wireless devices like laptops and  cellphones to a mesh network where they can communicate and share  local services.

Unlike the internet as it’s largely considered, mesh networks  like the ones setup through Commotion don’t necessarily allow  users to connect and then browse Facebook accounts or check  sports scores. Instead, it provides a way for network-ready  devices to communicate with one another in the event of an  emergency or internet blackout of sorts, and then use common  services that are shared throughout the ad hoc networks.

“The technology behind Commotion is designed with the users  in mind, specifically to enable them to connect with one another,  access information they may not otherwise have access to and take  existing community social networks into the 21st century,”   Thomas Gideon, the director of the Open Technology Institute’s  tech team, wrote in a press release issued late last year when  beta testing of Commotion 1.0 was completed.

“The release of Commotion 1.0 is exciting for us not only  because of the technology itself, but because of the great things  communities will be able to do with it as they are able to  provide access to broadband where it may not otherwise exist,  where it may be cost-prohibitive or where it may be  blocked,” Gideon said. “This opens up tremendous  opportunities. Whether a community loses traditional  infrastructure because of a natural disaster or as the result of  a repressive regime, Commotion provides a locally-owned  alternative for diverse communities in the United States and  around the world.”

In the Times this week, journalists Carlotta Gall and James Glanz  explained that a series of Commotion test runs carried out abroad  have already helped people create and connect mesh networks when  wireless communications might not otherwise be viable. As those  reporters wrote, the US State Dept. has handed over $2.8 million  to the American technologists working on perfecting Commotion,  and networks have already been established around the globe as a  result.

A project in the city of Sayada, Tunisia, for example, went live  last December with the help of the State Dept. There, according  to Commotion’s press release at the time, “local media has  hailed the deployment of a beta version of Commotion for powering  the first free community WiFi network in Tunisia, and serving as  a model for the rest of the country for its potential to  strengthen democratic institutions and boost social and economic  opportunities.”

“The mesh network blankets areas of town including the main  street, the weekly market, the town hall and the train station,  and users have access to a local server containing Wikipedia in  French and Arabic, town street maps, 2,500 free books in French  and an app for secure chatting and file sharing,” Gall and  Glanx wrote for the Times this week.

According to their report, it only took a small team of  technologists and around 50 local residents equipped with routers  and wireless devices to get a functional mesh network in place in  Sayada for its 14,000 people. The entire process took around two  weeks.

But as concerns over internet censorship continue to emerge  throughout the world, other locales just like Sayada may start to  set up similar networks. According to the December statement from  Commotion’s team, Somaliland, Dahanu, India, Brooklyn, New York  and Detroit, Michigan have all experimented with the system as  well.

In Manhattan earlier this month, a group of hackers met up and  practiced an imaginary apocalyptic scenario in which the internet  spontaneously goes offline.

“It’s comforting to know that someone is preparing for  Internet Armageddon, given the events of recent  years,”New Yorker journalist Joshua Kopstein  recalled afterward. “In 2011, when Hosni Mubarak, then the  President of Egypt, instituted a country-wide Internet and  cell-phone blackout during that country’s revolution, the concept  was relatively new. These days, stories of state-mandated  Internet shutdowns have become almost commonplace, forcing us to  rethink networks whose resilience we once took for granted.”

And according to the Times, Cuba could be the next locale looking  for a solution to that problem. The United States Agency for  International Development, or USAID, “awarded a three-year  grant to the New America Foundation to make this platform  available for adoption in Cuba,” Matt Herrick, a spokesman  for the agency, told the paper.

Critics are expected to be quick to condemn that effort, however,  given recent news about another USAID program that installed a  social network in Cuba per the directive of the US government.  The so-called “Cuban Twitter” program revealed earlier this month  by the Associated Press has since attracted a fair share of  opposition, especially after it was reported that the endeavor  wasn’t launched solely to let Cubans communicate over a new  medium, but rather to encourage revolt by spreading among users  political stories critical of that country’s government.

Herrick told the Times that the new mesh network program is not  operational yet and that no USAID staffers have even ventured to  Cuba to begin work on it. According to the Times, however, the  agency has already pledged $4.3 million to getting a Commotion  mesh network off the ground there, suggesting that the US  government is indeed interested in ensuring that, even if privacy  on the internet may continue to be eroded by the NSA’s practice,  the government is giving people somewhere a way — albeit not  exactly an entirely secure one — to sign on and share info. In  some situations, however, those mesh networks may be the only way  that residents will be able to communicate with one another and  access information.


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